Part of the cultural history of wine in America, and particularly in California, is that the 2004 movie, Sideways, put Pinot Noir on the popular map. This year marks the movie’s tenth anniversary, and Pinot Noir continues to be one of the hottest varietals in the country.
How influential was the movie? In 2008, the a study by the American Association of Wine Economists showed both the case volume and average price of California Pinot Noir increased significantly in the years following the film’s release. In fact, the higher the bottle price, the more sales went up, suggesting that Sideways convinced Americans Pinot Noir was an upscale wine worth the investment.
The misadventures begin when Miles (Paul Giamatti), an un-recovered divorcé and would-be novelist with a wine fixation, decides to gift old college buddy and washed-up actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) with a celebratory trip to the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley
The region that benefited most from Sideways was the county the movie took place in: Santa Barbara. Anecdotally, local restaurants and tasting rooms saw a surge of visitors, which they believed was directly due to Sideways.
The so-called “Sideways Effect” resulted in a burst of guided tours that brought eager visitors to locales featured in the movie, with the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley appellations getting the lion’s share of the acclaim. Today, the allure of Santa Barbara-grown Pinot Noir is stronger than ever, with Santa Maria Valley bottlings vying with their sister appellations for sommelier influence and broad consumer appeal.
But is it just a fad? Ten years in, the “Sideways Effect” has proven to have legs. Pinot Noir has moved alongside Cabernet Sauvignon to become one of the great red wines produced in California.
The “Sideways Effect” proved a boon for Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and misfortune for Merlot.
Of course, we have to ask the question, would it have happened anyway, even withoutSideways? Or, to put it another way, which came first: Pinot Noir’s success, or Sideways? If you ask me, there’s little doubt about the answer: Pinot Noir was already on a roll—a huge one—by 2004. In fact, if it weren’t for the quantum leap in quality that California Pinot Noir enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s, there never would have been a Sideways movie, because Miles Raymond, the movie’s protagonist–and perhaps the alter ego of its writer, Rex Pickett–never would have fallen in love with Pinot Noir.
So Sideways got it right, in the sense that it both recognized the star power of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and shared it with a vast audience. And for that, we have to give the movie, Rex Pickett and director Alexander Payne due credit.
But for the ultimate credit, you have to turn to Santa Barbara’s cool-climate terroir, and to the vision and talent of its grape growers and winemakers. They gambled on Pinot Noir when it wasn’t popular, at a time when many so-called experts believed it couldn’t be successful in California, and guess what? They proved the naysayers wrong.
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By Steve Heimoff